Monday, 22 December 2008

Timesplitters team splitting after all this time?

First of all, I apologise for the title of this blog. I really do. Whilst it is a fairly accurate in the message it is portraying, it is a fairly awful play on words that I am not entirely proud of.

Anyway, this post comes with the story that Free Radical Design is on the verge of slipping away in to the dark corner of non-existence.

The story goes that the highly respected games developer has been running on fumes for months now after a series of unfortunate events. This includes that much hyped, but unfortunately less than stellar title Haze and the deal with Lucas Arts (rumoured to be Star Wars Battlefront III) falling through.

The first official thing that any employees heard of the matter was when they turned up to work last week to find the doors locked and a note on the door telling them to turn up for a meeting in a hotel down the road.

It was here that an emotional Steve Ellis (co-founder of Free Radical) told everyone that the company was in trouble. This does seem a bit like breaking the bad news to someone who is already dead, but many employees have had suspicions that something was not quite right in the camp for months.

However, there is some hope on the horizon for the company. ReSolve, the appointed administrator of Free Radical has said that there is significant interest in the company being bought.

Free Radical is of course most well known for the fantastic and non-sensical Timesplitters series, famous for disproportioned cartoon characters and monkeys shooting seven shades of sticky red stuff out of each other.

Hopefully, if the company is saved from the brink, the fourth instalment of this hugely played series will be released. The obvious, yearned for feature with the next game would be large scale online play, and could certainly take the crown for best multiplayer shooter, if the previous games multiplayer is anything to go by.

Hopefully some of the guys that worked on Goldeneye (the Nintendo 64 shooter) who were part of the original Free Radical team will either be still there, or have passed on their new tricks.

All that we can do is sit back, hope and pray extra hard to the Gods of Gaming to see that Free Radical Design comes back from the edge with extra monkeys, guns and virtual moustaches.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Why The Sims?

When does life get so repetitive, that to get away from all of the toils and troubles the world can throw at you, the idea of managing a virtual person to do exactly the same thing becomes appealing?

It is as if your brain is trying to tell you that your imagination has commit suicide with a big hammer and rather than getting a new one, it decides to employ the metaphorical archiving guy in your brain to fill the position.

The only reason that any of this has come up is that I recently saw a trailer for The Sims 3 and that it was so strange; it seems to have been dreamt up by a gibbon that is high on methylated spirits and jelly tots. You can watch it and draw your own conclusions here.

Now, I have never made it a secret that I do not like The Sims series, nor do I really understand it.

I have enough trouble trying to wake up in the morning myself, never mind training an imaginary friend to get in to a routine so that they can get their lazy arse out of bed and not miss a bus. I should admit however that I have only ever played the first game.

There are a few fun things that my twisted peers and I managed to come up with to make the game more entertaining.

I’m fairly sure that a lot of people have done the trick of sealing the sims in a room by deleting doors, and then placing a lot of fireplaces and wooden furniture that acts as a very nice set of combustibles to doom the little beggars. There are also the odd occasions when you would delete the steps to a swimming pool so that any paddling sims would drown themselves.

One tale that a friend of mine told me about had me reeling about for quite a while, and made me actually want to play the game, just to see if such things could actually be done.

Allegedly, he made a really fat, unpleasant man who would invite the neighbourhood children around to his house. He would then give them a tour of the shed, but delete the door once the child was inside, making some kind of wrongly hilarious, pretend child prison. To top it all off, since he spent his days entrapping children, he financed building his house by making and selling jam from home.

Just the thought that it is possible to make a jam pedalling (potential) virtual paedophile was easily enough to send me into an unstoppable giggle fit, and debate whether to have my friend committed to a ‘special’ house with the other ‘special’ people.

It really is something quite extreme and, I must admit, odd, that in order to enjoy the game, I need to do it wrong. I am sure that this kind of thing is not what EA and Maxis have in mind. If the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas ‘Hot Coffee’ sex mod was enough to make people edgy, how does a virtual child dungeon stack up?

Maybe one day I will venture back in to the folly of managing virtual lives that make sanding corners seem like sex and beer, but until then, I will stick with steam rolling armies of zombies.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Sleigh bells ring and games are glistening

Well, the 2008th anniversary of someone possibly being born that we celebrate with presents and family feuds is almost upon us, and the games market is looking up for the first time all year.

After a really dry summer with only one or two good games released, things are starting to look up after we have been spoilt for choice with great titles such as Fable 2, Mirrors Edge, Fallout 3, Left 4 Dead, Gears of War 2 and Little Big Planet brightening up gamer’s lives.

As with Christmas time every year, sales of game hardware are also likely to go through the roof, with more and more people wanting Wiis, Playstation 3s and Xbox 360s. Heck, even I have written to Father Christmas, asking for a new graphics card (I just really hope that one of his elves is a technology buff).

Woolworths being in trouble means that they have slashed 10% off of their gaming stock which means you might be able to find a bargain on the high street, but the internet will probably trump it.

Just remember to get your games ordered soon, as royal mail are slow enough even when there is no Christmas rush, and so you are more likely to win the lottery and be struck by lightening on the same day, than get your presents on time if you leave it much later.

Even in the recession people are willing to spend money on games which really does say a lot about the industry, and how popular it is growing to be when compared with music and movies.

What’s more is that there is no need to feel guilty about spending money on new games rather than luxuries like food, because the more we spend, the healthier the economy gets. So go and buy a new games console, buy me one if you really want to help the country!

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The Touch Screen and Gaming

When talking about Windows 7, a lot of people seem to become quite childlike about the entire thing and just start reminiscing about how cool the computer interfaces in minority report were.

Yes, touch screens can be cool, but do I want them in my games? The DS touch screen has been a bit of a hit and miss wonder bringing us an onslaught of games readily accessible to old people who like sudoku and making sure their brain still works.

I did not buy the DS Zelda game because the only control was the touch screen. Stabbing a small monitor with a stubby pencil wannabe somehow does not seem quite as appealing as pushing big, satisfying buttons.

If Microsoft wants to phase out the mouse on the PC in favour of placing sweaty fingers on the screen, how will this affect my beloved shooting games? Would I have to physically touch what I want to shoot? Apart from making me feel like some kind of overpowered God person killing pixel armies, it just would not feel the same.

A mouse already feels far removed from a weapon, so remove all peripherals and what do you have? Will we be playing The Sims 6 completely naked and be able to influence it with different body odours? Can Tomb Raider 15 be completely controlled through interpretive dance and rubbing against the screen?

I will keep the mouse in my gaming as long as possible thank you very much! A touch screen might be advantageous to a few games, such as real time strategies, but I want to be really selfish and ask, ‘What will it do for MY genre?’

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Can I learn to love the boomstick?

In most games, everyone usually has their favourite weapon; their preferred tool for doing unspeakable things that in reality would give veterans nightmares, but in game give us big, twisted smiles.

On the other end of this stick however, is also the least preferred weapon. The thing that you would rather leave there, mounted in its convenient, but supposedly random position to rot whilst you try and tear things to pieces with your teeth.

For me this is generally the shotgun. I don’t know what it is but I just really do not get along with them.

Their wide spread and high stopping power are often handy, but between shots you often have to pump it, like it was a super soaker for grown ups that fired lead pellets rather than water from the garden tap. This is inconvenient as the thing that you were shooting at often alerts its mates. This leaves you painfully defenceless as you reload, cartridge by sodding cartridge.

I much prefer the convenience of a rifle clip, gas canister or belt feeder that keeps the carnage down to a slightly lesser, but constant stream of death and self preservation.

This has however changed ever so slightly with my new favourite game (yes, I know, third blog mention in a row) Left 4 Dead.

The stopping power and wide spread is quite handy when you have a few hundred zombies filling your screen. Also you can reload whilst jabbing them in the balls with the blunt end of the gun and so you are no longer a defenceless vegetable waiting to be bent over and given unpleasantries.

This being said however, in my eyes, the rifles always win. Shotguns are essentially a lottery when it comes down to what you hit for what damage, due to the random directions the pellets like to take. Why risk not hitting the mark, when you can hit it dead on from 100 metres away with a good ol’ bullet.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Left 4 Dead

It is surprising how much time can be eaten up when you are mowing through hoards of zombies with an M16 as casually as if you were mowing a lawn. That is until one of the ‘special’ ones comes along and vomits in your eyes attracting hundreds more. I can’t really relate this to any lawn mowing experience unless you live with really horrible people.

I have been very heavily addicted to zombicidal slaughter fest Left 4 Dead ever since it came out Tuesday morning. The whole experience has left me with many emotions stirring around in my head and a smile that surgeons would have trouble removing.

The game is a fantastic blend of intense action, genuine panic and a sense of accomplishment every time you get away from the scenario alive.

To try and compare this game to an experience that a lot of people could relate to, I would have to say it is like going to your first heavy metal gig, drunken club night or being trafficked in a shipping container with 100 other people. Now imagine that all these people you are shoulder to shoulder with all hate you and are attacking you, as you cling optimistically to your mobile phone. Now imagine that your mobile phone is an assault rifle and you have a pretty good idea of what the game is like.

It makes stewarding at a football game with a crowed made up of nazi skinheads and LA street gangs look tame. If you get this game wrong, you are literally swarmed by so many ‘infected’ that even doing 360 degree sweeps of gun fire is not even enough to save you sometimes. It is truly like nothing I have experienced in a first person shooter.

Everything about this game is fun and Valve has exceeded expectations yet again, making a unique online first person shooter that will be fun for years to come.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

A taste of the dead

Whilst the title of this blog sounds like a rather controversial budget cookery show by Delia Smith, it is actually referring to Valve’s latest demo for online team based shooter, Left 4 Dead.

Having pre-ordered it I managed to get into the advance release, but it is now available to everyone here.

The objective is simple, survive. You have to advance through to the end of each area, mowing down everything in your path like an indiscriminate combine harvester with guns in the blades, whilst working together as a team.

You play as one of four survivors, running for safety and away from the hordes of ‘infected’ that plague each area.

There are only two areas in the demo and a typical run through will probably take about 20 to 30 minutes but the thing that keeps it interesting is the AI director.

Like the banker on Deal or No Deal, only evil, it oversees your actions and the progress you are making, but without a Noel Edmonds style middle man. At the most inconvenient moment he can turn up the heat and flood the area with hundreds of zombies that come running and screaming from every conceivable angle.

Every game is different because the zombies attack you in an unpredictable and random manner with each play through. If an area was swamped with the walking decayed last time, it could be completely deserted the next.

With only two levels this might get old after a few hours, but in the full game there are 20 stretches of random mayhem to run, gun and die in. Talking of guns there are ten. Not so many, but they are all suited to their own specified situations, and so none appear underpowered or will be ignored.

Mowing down hordes of the undead has never been so fun, and the full venture comes out on November 18.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

A game of two halves (so one I suppose)

The beautiful game. To me, this is Metal Gear Solid 4. To those who have no problems showering with other men, it would probably be football, a game originally played with the stuffed innards of a pig.

Now, I like kicking dead things as much as the next guy, but televising it with international players representing national teams is getting a bit silly.

This all being said, I have recently been trying out FIFA, and I have to say, it isn’t half bad; more 51% good.

I prefer more of the over the top silliness of Mario Strikers: Charged, where setting the opposing goal keeper on fire and punching the defenders is allowed and encouraged.

The thing that I do not understand is why you would want to play a game that is based on a game that already takes itself far too seriously? I’m sure it is fun being able to play football on the TV screen and not risk breaking a leg or accidentally touching a friend in their special place, but where are the exaggerated differences that make games what they are!

It is not fun being told that the goal you just scored did not count, because you had the audacity to pass to a player who was smart enough to get behind the other team’s defenders. Why should the game stop because I nudged the ball outside a drawn box, wouldn’t a solid wall around the edge make it better?

You can not even argue that you are playing football as you would dream it, because if you honestly want to play all eleven positions, and randomly switch persona to the guy closest to the ball, then you clearly belong in Tescos as the world’s most efficient shelf stacker.

To make football games, virtual or real more interesting, at least add a multi-ball feature or pitfalls on the pitch.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Can technology hurt games?

Hypothetically, if you were to take an existing car, stick a bigger engine in it, give it a shinier, sleeker chassis and put a George Foreman grill in the glove box, it would be better, right? Adding stuff to an already great product has got to make it better surely! Just look at Michael Jackson (oh wait…)

A lot of game franchises get butchered these days when the sequel to the original arrives like the ugly child in a pretty family. It does not turn into a beautiful swan and have a fairy tale life, but instead is instead forced to live in the sewers, facing a gauntlet of hate and un-pleasantries.

One thing to blame for these things that should never have been has actually been the advances in technology. The transition from 2D to 3D was too much of a shock to some fantastic game series, and the result caused the later titles to release their bowls and let it seep into the gameplay.

Earthworm Jim was once a mighty character, loved by all for his random adventures, fighting evil goldfish and memorable foes such as Professor Monkey for a head and Queen-Pulsating-Bloated-Festering-Sweaty-Pus-Filled-Malformed-Slug-For-A-Butt. His 2D charms had many glued to their Nintendo systems, loving every minute.

Then Earthworm Jim 3D happened. It was not too much of an abomination for a platform game, but there were horrific camera problems and not much new content that came with the advanced direction. If it had stayed true its roots and was another 2D outing, so much more could have been achieved from it.

On the other hand, a certain portly plumber has done very well through the years, appearing on every Nintendo system to date. To successfully move a character on with advancing technology, it needs to be done with care as a rush job will stick out in history like a saw thumb at a foot convention.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Full Spectrum Bargain

To quote a really bad prostitute, "Just a quick one today" (legal note - said prostitute is imaginary, and I did not stalk the streets of Cheltenham last night looking for that insight).

I thought that people might be interested in knowing that the 2004 hit strategy game Full Spectrum Warrior from Pandemic Studios is now absolutely free. It is available from here and definitely worth a try.

The game sees you in the control of eight soldiers split between two squads. It appears to be a third person shooter, but it is actually a real time strategy game played from this perspective. The player has no direct control over the squads, but instead can order them to move, duck behind cover or shoot in the direction of the bad men. It's like you are in control of a soldier's nagging wife, as they often take a while to respond to your orders. There should be an audible 'yes dear' with every mouse click the amount of time they take sometimes.

The fact that there are two squads also makes for some interesting game play tactics, such as drawing the fire with one batch of men, whilst sneaking the others round the back route. It is a fantastic game and there is no other series out there that quite does it like this one.

The game maybe free, but it will definitely make you decide if you want a coke, or if you want to blow up the coca-cola headquarters, as it insists in cramming a thirty second advert for it down your throat at every turn. If you take too many bullets to the face and want to get back in the action, the last thing you want is to have a fizzy drink advert pressed into your eyes.

It is still techinically a free game though, so you can't really lose.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Spore - Flowery hats edition

Electronic Arts are playing their favourite game again, ‘flog the dead horse’, only this time, the marketing people are pummelling a pony fresh from the womb. Recently released create ‘em up, Spore, from developer Maxis is already receiving an expansion pack in November titled ‘cute and creepy parts pack’. The alliteration in the name already makes for a catchy title, but is EA about to repeat the Sims marketing strategy on the gaming public?

Whilst I intended to make a bit of a snipe at Spore with the title of this blog, it has occurred to me that flowery hats could in fact be a new addition to the ‘cute’ side of the game. Of course, being EA, they will probably go on to churn out as many products as they can related to Spore until a true sequel comes out, at which point they will rinse and repeat.

The Sims for example, had a series of seven expansion packs after the original was released which included the titles ‘The Sims: Hot Date’ and ‘The Sims: Unleashed’. These let your Sims go out on dates and also adopt pets (thankfully, not allowing a hybrid of the two ideas) amongst other things.

The Sims 2 then came out, and over a period of three years or so, brought another eight expansions with it. Your virtual people could now go to university and experience different states of weather. To go with this immense money churning machine was the arrival of ‘stuff packs’. There are currently nine of these, with the tenth arriving in November. Rather curiously, the ninth edition was the ‘IKEA Home Stuff’ collection that let you cover your dream house in affordable Swedish flat pack furniture. Why anyone would want to do this in a dream situation is a bit odd, as those of us who own IKEA products often bought them as the bitter grief of real life forced us to compromise somewhere.

Maybe Spore will have a different fate, only having a few expansions that are all meaningful and don’t just mean that your creatures can now order pizza and experience online dating. With the same people at the helm who made the Sims however, it does not look like it will deviate from this big money spinning route.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Wii games, a graphical compromise?

With Nintendo’s small white box currently in a bit of a dry spell for games which appeal to the majority of people who consider themselves gamers, looking back there have been some real gems. The latest of these Nintendo classics that saw a UK release was probably Super Smash Bros. Brawl, which rather interestingly, did not take advantage of the one trick pony’s main gimmick, motion controls.

The unique way of controlling the majority of the games was probably the biggest selling point, along with an appealing low initial price tag. Now that the console war is in full swing though, the mighty Playstation 3 powerhouse is getting graphics that are clearer than a nun’s conscience, whilst the Wii has to make do with a lesser sense of prettiness. Two major games, one just released and another on the horizon highlight this point excellently.

Star Wars: The force Unleashed is on multiple platforms and sees the player control Darth Vader’s secret apprentice, hacking up everything with his lightsaber. Since the first thing I thought would be cool when reading about a motion controller was swinging around an imaginary deadly beam of light, I was rather excited at the idea. Unfortunately, the Wii graphics make each character look like a wire frame model coloured in with a paintball gun. When compared to the PS3’s, real life challenging, graphics of beauty (unsurprisingly used in every advertisement for the game), it makes you wonder if replacing a button press with a wrist waggle was really worth it.

It is a similar story to Call of Duty: World at War coming out on November 15. The trade off here however is a little easier to swallow. Instead of being forced to aim with a control pad nub, you simply point at the screen with the Wii remote just as if it were a really weapon. Of course it is obvious that the bright white, light weight, TV remote look a like could never be anything like holding a gun, but pointing something where you want to shoot just feels more natural than flicking a little analogue stick.

Unfortunately for the Wii, the motion controls are best suited to certain games, but due to the way the video game market works, there are a lot of games where they are no more than a novelty. The Wii is designed to be fun for everyone, but a lot of us still feel a bit shunned by the universal audience approach. You can never please everyone.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Nintendo trying to win friends?

My on going adventure into learning the internet has expanded a bit more as I have just purchased the domain name playeronestart.com. This means that it is a much more snazzy, more memorable address for those who want to access this piece of educated rambling. On the flipside of this, should the blog suddenly implode and be inaccessible temporarily, I have pressed the wrong button, and am frantically beavering away to rectify the unintended state of purgatory.

Speaking of the internet has made me think, how great is it really? Information at your finger tips sure is handy, but handy does not always mean good. Hearing about a bleak world ten times quicker than you would have done a decade ago, just means that people can get unhappier faster. A rather pessimistic approach perhaps, but it seems to be the way Nintendo has been playing for the past six months. After a disappointing E3 line up, that actually made the concept of playing catch with the Wii seem more enjoyable than playing the newly announced games, Nintendo needed a big hook to pull us back.

Well, they sort of have. As was posted the morning it was announced, Nintendo are bringing out a few surprises that will please more die hard fans, than the current waves of 'casual gamers'. A new Pikmin has been announced, possibly for the Wii, that should please the wide audience it found back in 2001. Along with this another DS has crawled out of the shadows to join the current two models in the form of the DSi. Larger screens, a slimmer profile, camera and SD card reader make this new edition stand out from it's older and slightly overweight siblings. It may just be a way for Nintendo to squeeze even more money out of the successful console, but it is not a bad thing if more people are thinking of joining the craze. It may be worth holding off buying a DS Lite until this comes out to take advantage of the added shininess.

The last piece of news delivered just after it happened was the slightly more disappointing 'Enjoy With Wii' collection. Basically the classics of yesteryear mangled and regurgitated with Wii controls and a new box. This digital recycling jobby is rather a let down for the self crowned 'hardcore' audience, who are demanding new and exciting titles. It almost seems as if Nintendo is stalling for time. Hopefully the future holds a more promising outlook, but for now we'll have to make do.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

A change of direction


First of all, apologies for another late blog. Hopefully the technical problems I have been facing are now cleared up, and I have a healthy computer again. As you may or may not know, this blog, as well as being a place for me to hammer out ideas about the gaming world, is also part of my print journalism course. This post will be the marker from where I will be assessed I believe, so just to mark the occasion, I have put a nice image of my mug, proper column like. It is also black and white so that I look professional/arty/like an unoriginal arse who thinks that it is being different.

The regular Wednesday posting slot will be dropped in favour of more entries throughout the week, keeping you more up to date with gaming news and features.

The world of games journalism is an interesting one to say the least. The girls, the money, the power, the free time and all of the other things that do not come with the job are traded off for the opportunity to sit at a desk for nine hours a day, basking in the glow of a monitor. As any career in the journalistic field will show, the perks come out of the blue in the guise of fun stories and opportunities. It is a very unpredictable, but usually satisfying job that can take you anywhere.

Take PC Zone for example. I had the pleasure of meeting the team on a work experience placement, but just the other day, three of them tendered their notices. One of the guys got a job offer in New York and the other two have now gone freelance. All will still contribute, but in a different, less hands on kind of way. Is this a good thing? New blood might be refreshing, but everyone was comfortable with the old style.

Is it a case that the working conditions after a budget cut felt like a little bit too much? Or is it just a natural career progression? Only the individuals will know these answers for sure, but it has shaken my perspective a bit. Is in house the way to go, settling in and trying to carve a niche in an established piece of work. Perhaps freelancing, being your own boss and sticking your fingers in as many different pies as possible is the way to go about it. It certainly works well for many people such as Terry Pratchett’s daughter, Rhianna, a former journalist turned games writer, who occasionally does freelance games journalism.

Whatever route a games journalist goes down, they all eventually cross over at some point, like the London Underground, only with a friendlier atmosphere, like anything above the inner circle of hell. Journalists meet up, trade stories, talk to the same people and develop a network of useful contacts and generally nice people. It is a job about pursuing what you love, and going above and beyond the call of duty to get it. Also playing games.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Are online deathmatches dying?

The age old pursuit of putting people in enclosed spaces and getting them to pound each other to death with rocks, is strangely absent from our modern day lifestyles. Instead, such contests of strength, bravado and extreme violence amongst your fellow persons are now limited to vast online arenas. It can be in a space station, a castle, on horseback or within the steel belly of a tank, but for a long time, the underlying objective has been to obliterate competitors with no remorse and plenty of smack talk.

Admittedly, such a goal sounds far more interesting than ‘make sure everyone is having a nice time by offering ice cream and complementary hand jobs’ but it is becoming the same old story. The quality of online deathmatch definitely varies from game to game, but they all still have the familiar pains and stale odours. After a while it gets tiring, and the interest fades with each frag. A game needs to offer more these days.

When I played Unreal Tournament 2004, the only mode that kept me entertained long enough for a hamster to complete a revolution of its wheel, was dubbed assault. This was a mission based mode where certain objectives had to be completed by the attacking team in sequence, whilst the defending team made sure that did not happen. The objectives varied from pulling a switch to open a door, planting explosive to blast it open, or fly a spaceship into a hanger to trigger an on foot invasion. This mode was perfect because to win, kill counts actually took a secondary seat to team work and completing goals. There was still more guts on the floor than an abattoir waste bin, but the guy at the top of the leader board, was not there because he was playing solely for himself.

Fast forward three years to Unreal Tournament 3, where the mode was removed, and it just feels like an old dog with no new tricks and Alzheimer's. It has switched to a minimal team-goal orientated gameplay experience, and run of the mill online deathmatch. It was a real shame because this instalment does introduce some nice new gimmicks, but not enough to increase the interest in it beyond a few play sessions. It offers nothing in the way of immersive, goal driven based killing that had worked so well previously in the series.

Deathmatch may not be dead yet, but interest in it is definitely short lived if the experience offers nothing new. Valve has lead a good example in the past with Counter-strike and more recently with Team Fortress 2, delivering a steady stream of updates over the life of the game. This keeps it fresh, and adds to the boring recipe that the deathmatch formula is becoming. If a game is not to be constantly nurtured by a dev team, then it must offer something radical and different, possibly like the upcoming zombie killer, Left 4 Dead. This pits you and three friends up against hordes of AI and human controlled zombies in a cooperative showdown to the end.

Edit – Sorry for the delay, but I have been experiencing a few technical problems.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The life span of a series

If Sylvester Stallone has taught us anything, unlike wine and whiskey, series' of things do not always improve with age. There are quite a few long running game franchises out there and a lot of them are starting to run out of steam. When a developer tries to breathe new life into it, a lot of people reject the change. On the flipside, if they re-make a similar game, it is seen as a copy and paste job that does nothing new and exciting. It is quite hard to get the balance right.

The first Crash Bandicoot was one of the pioneers of the 3D platforming world. It amazed people with it's level design, quirky humour and decent gameplay that have made it a gem in the Playstation's crown. Then came Crash Bandicoot 2. Not a lot changed, but there were more levels, a new layout to the level selection (meaning you did not have to do each tier of levels in any particular order) and it generally improved a lot of things from the first game. With the arrival of Crash Bandicoot 3, it looked like Naughty Dog could do no wrong. The game itself was alright, but there were quite a few things about it that really did not do Crash any favours. Flying levels were introduced that handled like a very poor flight sim and towards the end of the game, Crash acquires a bazooka meaning that sniping enemies from a far was easier than going in with standard attacks.

It is from this point that the series started to plummet faster than a hammer in the river Thames. It might have had something to do with Traveller's Tales taking over from Naughty Dog, but all of a sudden, there was nothing new and original in the series. Just repetitiveness from the previous games and a gimmick or two that did not work. The latest outing, Crash of the Titans is a complete re-wire of the original Crash Bandicoot that has taken what was a perfect clay model, and moulded it into a disproportionate rabbit. Basically, the series has had its successful run and is now falling over itself, refusing to stop.

An example of a strong series is the Hitman games. Each one has perfected on the last in little ways. The sneaking and disguise system has been getting better and better ever since the original incarnation in 2000. In the latest offering, Hitman: Bloody Money, it all just feels perfect, having gone through the teething pains of it's older siblings, and coming out superior. Even little things, like being able to sedate a sausage to knock out an annoying dog have been implemented making it one of the most flexible and approachable stealth games out there. I am eagerly awaiting the next installment, and am hoping that it follows the, thus far, ever improving trend.

A series that is a bit of a mixed bag is very hard to judge from media reactions. Whenever a Grand Theft Auto game is released, it always seems to score as close to perfect as it can. Whilst I have liked every game in the series, I do think that when compared to each other, the newer outings are not as amazing as they are hyped to be. You could argue that comparing them to each other is similar to comparing Fabergé eggs with one another. They're all covered in sparkly bits and are treasured in your collection. It is in my opinion however, that the last Grand Theft Auto that did anything really amazing and revolutionary for the series was Vice City. San Andreas just gave you a bigger area to roam with a less impressive sound track, and GTA4 just gave everything a nice paint job and slightly improved gunplay.

GTA has been a around for a while, but has it started it's slippery slope? Judging from sales figures, absolutely not. The original games were top down affairs, and GTA3 breathed new life into the series making it a truly revolutionary title that gave birth to the sandbox game on PS2. Knowing Rockstar, they treat their games like their babies, and so want them to have the best in life. GTA probably isn't in danger yet, but it really does beg the question, how long will it last?

How long will any game series last? Mario is proving to be very resilient, but even he has had to fight through a tide of rubbish games that slap the porky plumber on the cover.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Yarr, pirates ahoy

I know that it can't just be me who gets annoyed by the anti piracy ads you now get whenever you attempt to watch a DVD. It always nags me that I would never steal a car or a handbag, or even a movie. This advert knows nothing about me. Maybe I would steal a car, handbag, film or police man's hat. In fact, the advert is so annoying, especially when it can not be skipped, that it might just persuade me to get a pirated version of the film, because at least that one won't insist on telling me how bad I am.

Now, personally, I do not condone piracy. I believe that if something is good enough for me to want it, the producers of the work are entitled to my money. That is how a job works. However, making your game so inaccessible to paying customers to try and stop this big piracy monster, is not the way to go about combating it whilst keeping a loyal fan base. Spore, released last Friday, is protected to the brim with the much hated DRM protection, which only allows the game to be installed three times. This might be enough for the majority of users, but then there are those who are about to switch machines, or who share the game with other family members who have their own computers within the same house. Before you know it, the three install limit becomes a bit of a problem.

This over protective software is bizarrely the reduced security version, meaning that originally it was much worse. The first concept was met by the metaphoric pitch forks and torches of the online world very swiftly. It was initially planned that the game would need an internet connection to activate itself, be limited to three installs, but also it would perform an online check every two weeks, meaning that those without an internet connection would not be able to play an offline game. This was of course absurd, and shot down shortly after the information went public.

It is or should be a well known fact that you can not stop software piracy. There are people who like to take the challenge of cracking security just for the sake of it. Sometimes it is then sold on at a market for example, but in the vast majority of cases, it is distributed free on the internet, and not lining the pockets of terrorists as some anti piracy campaigns might have you believe. The real irony of the situation however, is that a lot of the time, these pirated versions are more user friendly. No more obstructive copy protection to screw over the player, that the paying customers are having to fight through. You could even try supplying every game with an armed guard and hornets nest, the pirates will still find away to crack it, and put a pain free version online.

The best way to fight video game piracy is to simply accept that it will happen. Sins of a Solar Empire, developed by Ironclad Games had no CD protection on it at all. Yes, it was pirated, but it also sold well and topped charts, making the developers money. A lot of self confessed pirates would admit that if they do download a game illegally, if they think it is good enough, they would spend their cash on it. Surely this is a sign that in order to cut piracy down, developers should invest less time in copy protection, and more on making their games good. Quality and piracy do show trends in other industries. Many people justify their habit of downloading songs by saying that they are seeing if the artist/album is any good before they buy.

I will stick stand by my guns and say piracy is bad, and yes, it does cost computer games sales. Developers do need to acknowledge however, that it is not just piracy that would cost them sales, it is the overall quality of the game they make. It is very easy to blame the figurative skull and cross bones for screwing them out of sales, but this seems more of an excuse these days than thought out reasoning.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Co-operating

Whilst I do like gladiatorial style grudge matches with friends in the same room on Super Smash Bros: Brawl, I also like uniting with my fellow peers and blowing stuff up. There's just something about being in the same room, with someone you know, and going through a game, annihilating it together. Maybe it's the camaraderie, and the simple commands that you can give each other without the aid of a microphone. Or perhaps it's the fact that you only need one expensive console and television that are not hooked up to the internet.

Call me old fashioned, but I do not like the amount of games coming out with a solely online co-op mode. The term 'co-op mode' should be a guarantee that you will be playing through a game together, side by side, with a degree of co-operation. Open this environment up to the internet however, and it could very quickly dissolve into being paired with someone who will steam roll the game solo, leaving you to polish your gun, and avoid stepping in left over brain matter. That is not what co-op multiplayer gaming is all about! Not to mention the new levels of griefing it could open up, when you're new found internet best friend decides that dropping a laser designated bunker busting missile on your face is hilarious. The trouble is, this is exactly the kind of thing that I would be tempted to do at least once in a game like Mercenaries 2. Online there is the added incentive to do it because the person I am playing with will never be in the same room as me, ready to acquaint their fist with my gentleman regions.

The influence of today's post could possibly be the fact that the aforementioned Mercenaries 2: World In Flames comes with a solely online co-op multiplayer. I think this is a bit naff as a game like this would be brilliant to play with friends. Instead of being able to open it up to everybody in a beer and gaming evening, you now instead have to be in possession of friends with their own Playstation 3, who have to stay at home to get a game in with you. This is not the case if you are willing to take your PS3 to said mates house and then link it up to the internet over there, fumbling around with an extra TV and more extension chords than a PC World showroom. After all that effort you might as well decide to screw the gaming and have a few beers, because in half an hour you will need to take it down again.

This lack of split screen multiplayer seems to be going against the idea of multiplayer gaming. Instead of gaming in the same room together, drinking and being merry, Pandemic Studios want you all sitting a mile or so apart, getting hammered by yourself and only communicating via microphone. They are very much in the spirit of 'togetherness' it seems.

I do realise that there are sacrifices that need to be made in order to have a split screen game, after all, you need to render the game environment twice. To get around this, some games tone down the graphics a bit. In my mind, this is a worthwhile trade off. Take Army of Two for example. There was a game which was a bit 'so-so' when playing through single player. Get a mate over however, and the gameplay receives a huge boost with tactical decisions and bodies flying in every direction.

Multiplayer seems to be the latest feature that every game needs to have, but driving it all online does rather derive from the original premise of a good night in with mates. Now its all about having an average night in with people you know as 'y0d4 88', who may or may not be an undercover policeman trying to coerce you into indecent situations with minors.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

It's good to be bad

The title is not advice intended for the real world, but I doubt many people come to this little slice of the net to re-adjust their moral outlooks on life. When watching a bond film, have you ever sat their screaming at your television because the master villain is going about his plan all wrong? Probably not for fear of being committed, but you would not be alone if you thought to yourself why that particular bad guy made terrible decisions, and what you would have done to make his diabolical scheme a success.

Enter my current favourite game. I was so excited to get another copy since loosing my original, that I have played it for nearly three days straight. Evil Genius puts you in the boots of exactly that, a devious plotter, focused on world domination. It does it of course in a very over the top and tongue in cheek way, making it one of the most enjoyable games that I can think of, for a very wide audience. Rather than giving you the hands on, bank robbing, mass murdering grunt work, your are more of an overseer of operations. It is your task to build a fiendish base on an abandoned island of an undisclosed location, recruit a minion work force and advance your plan.

My favourite aspect of the game is actually building and running the base. It is so much fun rigging a corridor with traps, just waiting for a hapless, wannabe James Bond to stumble into it and trigger a hellish sequence that ends in their demise. My latest trap involved a wind tunnel that went around a couple of corners, slamming the agents into walls until they ended up on a bed of deadly circular saws. It's all good clean fun. It really got me thinking though. Why is there no other good game like this.

The style of the game reminds me of the good ol' Bullfrog days with Theme Hospital and Dungeon Keeper. No, you can not pay a handy man to mop up sick, but it is a similar style in that you hire minions to do your bidding where you tell them what to do, but have no direct control over them. It is brilliant fun, and there is plenty of dark humour to keep you writhing around in your chair for hours.

As well as the actual gameplay perspective being enjoyable, I also really like being evil in games. Bad guys really do have more fun. In a gaming world that is populated with grey, anti-heroes, it has nice to actually be 100% evil from time to time. It has to be done in a humorous way mind, as a game called 'Osama Takes On The West', might not do too well unless their head of advertising is actually God.

Evil Genius does well in not taking itself seriously. There is everything that you would expect an over the top and slightly camp villain to have including perilously placed piranha tanks, security cameras hidden inside tribal statues and an endless supply of minions that the good guys seem to be able to take out in one punch.

I suppose what I am really trying to say, is that an Evil Genius 2 or Dungeon Keeper 3 would actually make me incredible happy in places that I probably shouldn't talk about. It is an untapped take on the genre which has been without a revisit for a while now. I could also say bring back Bullfrog and all of the Theme games, probably rallying a group of supporters larger than those wanting to free Tibet. For now however, we'll just have to be contempt with those great past masters that are still fun to play now.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Micropayments

Today I'm going to be looking at micropayments in games and there are a lot of different viewpoints to consider. On one hand, it allows you to customise a game exactly how you want it, meaning that you don't pay a bulk price for everything, but a lower price for specific items. On the other hand, a lot of us see it as the EA or, 'Sims approach' which involves grabbing a game by the goolies, and squeezing as much money and gushing fluid out of it as possible.

Just talking about the Sims briefly makes me feel like I need to wash myself. With the latest expansion in the never ending tide of crap being The Sims 2: Ikea Home Stuff, it really does seem like they are scraping the bottom of the barrel. For just £9.99 you can turn your virtual house house into a tacky Swedish look a like chalet, with all the flat packed furniture love you could ever want. I wish I was present in the meeting when they were debating whether to have The Sims 2: Linda Barker Loose, or DFS Sofa Set, before finally settling on the frustrating to build, affordable furniture shop. This is a perfect example of someone trying to squeeze all the money out of a game, by making the owners of the original continuously fork out for new content. A few expansion packs I could understand, but EA are frankly taking the piss with the latest offering. What happens when The Sims 3 comes out? Rinse and repeat.

Micropayments is kind of an evolution of this idea. Paying small amounts of money here and there in order to get access to new content. The main controversy surrounding this idea is that most people (including myself) feel that they should be able to buy a game, and have all of the content from the start. With micropayments in the picture however, it might feel like you have only bought half a game, as the rest of the stuff you want needs to be purchased separately. This is one thing that I had against the Windows Live service when it needed to be paid for on a subscription basis. To take the game online, I needed to pay more. This meant that I did not get to sample games like Gears of War in their online modes.

One game that in my opinion has the micropayment issue sussed is surprisingly from the money hungry, game bleeding giant, EA. Battlefield Heroes is the next in the series of Battlefield games that have now covered past, present and future conflicts in the form of a mass multiplayer frag fest. The previous games all had a few things in common, especially the fact that they were bought with a one off payment from your favourite retailer. What heroes does differently however, is that it is free to play for everyone. The way that EA plan to make their money is by giving the player the option to buy items for their character through micropayments. These are not game balance killing items either, but they are merely cosmetic in nature. This will be a pioneering project to see if a game can be run off of advertising and micropayments alone, and could well revolutionise the industry.

I am in a split mind about micropayments. If I am forced to pay more money than I have to for a game, just to keep on the edge of competing with other, more financially secure competitors, then I really can not lend it my support. If on the other hand I can not wear a funny hat unless I pay for it, then this is bearable. It will be interesting to see how Battlefield Heroes plays out and how many of us will invest in Hawaiian shirts and pointy shoes.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

One day late - a solid mistake

Whoops, looks like I finally missed a Wednesday without a valid excuse. This was not me being lazy, but instead I was distracted. I had work experience at a press office for the local district council, but this is not what pulled me away from my PC.

Yesterday I pushed through the big 90 minute ending cut scene of Metal Gear Solid 4 and all I can say is that the entire experience was immense, and I needed a cold shower afterwards. The game, in my opinion is a work of art, an amazing ending to a truly great series. I would not want to risk spoiling it for anyone, but at one point, being the hard nosed journalist that I am, I was nearly having to hold back tears.

More to the point though, it is amazing because it ties up all of the loose ends. Every niggling question about the Metal Gear series so far was answered and it had a very satisfying ending. Again, Kojima does wade so deep into a sea of 'WTF!?' that you need scuba diving gear to get through it, but everything does fall into place and is relatively easy to follow. Needless to say though, the nods to previous games and other bits that had me bouncing off the walls do make this game one of the best I have ever played through.

So that is why I missed my own deadline. After Metal Gear Solid 4, my brain simply stopped and fell into awe mode. It is very safe to say though that Solid or 'Old' Snake (as he is known throughout) has had his story come to an end. I still hope that there will be some more tactical espionage action in a few years however. The game mechanics in this series appear in no other games which really makes it unique. No one has done a Metal Gear knock off because it seems that getting it anywhere near that level of genius is a huge feat.

This game series is a truly ground breaking one. A little bit more gameplay would have been good, but I would in no way want that to impact on the length or quality of the cutscenes. I know that a lot of people have criticised the game for having drawn out scripted sequences in them. Some even called it a movie with a very interactive DVD menu. It adds so much more depth to the experience however. I really felt an impact when any of the characters did something, which is not a trait that I can put with many other games out there. This would definitely fall into my short list of 'best games ever'. Then again, I am a die hard fan, and so probably blinded by my unhealthy yearning for an old man wearing a skin tight rubber suit.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Nintendo, *facepalm*

Coming back from my holiday, I felt like a little child, wondering what gifts I could expect on Christmas day as I eagerly searched the net for what had been announced for the Wii at E3. It is now very clear that Nintendo has become a beacon of horrific disappointment, playing the same song over and over again. I myself am now become a broken record as I say it for the trillionth time, what the hell is the Wii for?

Most of the advertising these days seems to be depicting gyrating mums and dads or children who have been torn out of a yogurt advert. None of them are depicting the slightly sweaty average guy who is screaming at his Wii, telling it to do something new as so many of us are. There is a decent amount of good games on the Wii, but the recent two offerings of Mario Kart and Smash Bros are starting to wear a bit thin.

Mr Nintendo, Shigeru Miyamoto has finally gone insane, and instead of coming up with something sensible, like an overweight plumber chasing dinosaurs, he is going to give the hoards of fans Wii Music. With this you can simulate playing drums with two Wii remotes, definitely making you look like you wished you had Rock Band. Whilst I have complained about games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero milking the fact that they are built around peripherals, they are fun because you do not need to imagine the drums or guitars.

I honestly believe that it is just a matter of time before Nintendo towers can not see natural light through its windows due to the stupid amount of money it is hauling in. Unfortunately this means that it might not be able to see the uprising coming when the crowed wants Zelda or Pikmin and then Ninty announce 'Wii Cook' or 'Wii Wash' or 'Wii Want Your Money'. E3 was a wasted opportunity for Ninetendo who honestly seem to be grinding a studded boot into the groins of all those loyal fans who made it what it was today.

The only feint glimmer of hope that left me with some sign of promise for the little white box that wants to be everyones friend was some new footage of Mad World, which wasn't even a Nintendo announcement.

I am honestly getting tired of flogging this dead horse, but no matter how much everyone who considers themselves a half way decent Nintendo gamer screams into the sky, it just seems that this trend of mediocrity is set to continue. Why pay a developer a lot of money to make a ground pounding title, when you can take a rubbish game that can be made in flash, but give it motion control so that the new audience of bored house wives and those with a control pad phobia will buy up every copy?

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Taking some time out

I'm barely back two weeks when I'm taking yet another two week break from writing this seven-daily piece. "Oh no!", I hear the nameless hoards of the internet yelling. The reason for this is that I am going on holiday, escaping from the seemingly endless water fight that the clouds seem to be waging on England to somewhere a lot warmer. This two week getaway however will whisk me away from the gaming world, and many of the things I enjoy doing.

This isn't something that I am worried about because I am semi-normal and there are big bottles of beer where I am going. It does however mean that I shall be missing the big announcements coming up at E3 this July. This means that I will still have no idea why I should continue to support my Wii, after a long time of the little white box, tugging on my trousers wanting attention but doing the same old tricks. My hope is for a new Zelda title, but that could just be wishful thinking at this moment in time.

Another issue is my EVE obsession, which despite not logging in for a while, I still pay for religiously when the magic direct debit fairies lift the notes out of my bank account each month. Due to the game's system of training skills in real time, even when offline, I need to find a skill that will hold out for the two week period, and not expire before I return, just to get the most out of what I am paying for. I am also ashamed to admit that I am guilty of getting up at stupid times in the early hours to change a skill to minimise on potential time lost. It is an addiction, but unlike cocaine, I only lose bits of my nose if I am using the mouse in a seriously wrong way. I will have a tiny fix available however, as I was given the EVE novel to read over the holidays, which hopefully won't make me want to fill my eyes with sand and vomit up blood stained pearls.

I suppose that I will not be completely isolated from games, as my DS will probably be accompanying me. This said however, I have no idea what new game to buy, as the current chart toppers seem to be things like sight training and interactive cook books. Hardly the Metal Gear Solid and Super Smash Bros. style of gaming that I am accustomed to, in the age of extended audiences. Last year I made the mistake of buying Animal Crossing for the little folding machine, and got very bored and angry with it after accidentally destroying the turnip I had been nurturing for a week. I would consider getting Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass, but putting control 100% in the stylus is not an idea that I am comfortable with.

At the end of the day, I can live without games. I am going somewhere with plenty of sun, sea and beer, which should let my hands un-tense from the claws that gaming has grafted for me, meaning that I can come back and ruin them again after two weeks. This of course means that I will not be here to rave, rant and hint at anything game related, but the good people at Gamesradar seem to have that front covered if you need somewhere to go for it whilst I am gone. I suspect however, that if you were able to navigate the sickening beast that the internet has become to get here, you probably have a lot more interesting things bookmarked for your attention anyway. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

I got a taste of a real job

Hey all. Two weeks with no entries, and I am almost positive that nobody missed me. For everyone who had their fingers twitching by the phone, waiting to call the authorities because someone on the internet went quiet, I am quite safe and just recently returned from an awesome work experience placement at PC Zone.

Life in a magazine newsroom is quite interesting. If you are expecting it to look anything like the Daily Bugle from the various incarnations of Superman, then you clearly believe that the world is a more interesting place than it really is. Truth be told, it was a really good atmosphere, filled with some genuinely funny, friendly people who made me feel like I was part of the team, rather than the temporary tea lady.

The job is definitely a fun one from what I have seen. When I went there, I was writing the odd review about games that I am fairly sure you will not care to play unless you are a huge fan of the relatively unknown titles I was given. It did give me a chance however to try and improve on my writing, something that I always strive to do. I realise this is probably not the most interesting thing I could be writing about this week, what with Diablo III recently announced and such, and that a writer who is trying to improve his writing is probably about as strange as an engineer trying to design a boat that floats.

I know to many it might seem like the best job in the world, and to others, it might not seem like much of a job at all, but like all jobs, it also has its fair share of downsides. Just like any publication, deadlines will often bend you over a barrel and try to make you a 'special friend', but this is emphasised even more, when you meeting the deadline, is dependant on third parties making their's. When I was there, everything seemed to go relatively smoothly, but if a game developer is releasing a game a week after you go to publish, and you are stuck without a review code, things can start to look darker than the shoe box you buried your hamster in.

All in all, it was a very good experience, and I am very happy that I was given the opportunity to do it. I know this sounds like a very vain arse kissing session, but I really did have a lot of good times there.

Something that is playing on my mind however is the future of games journalism. I am still more than happy to spend five or six quid on a decent video games magazine, where the writing has gone through some sort of quality assurance tests, and wasn't written in crayon by a ranting lunatic. The internet has many of these, who can happily give you all of the information and a review of a game that at least conveys half of the message of what to expect when booting it up. This means that people who are prepared to pay for the information, even if it is put across coherently, are becoming few and far between, making the future of decent publications as hazy as the moors of Scotland after you have merrily downed a bottle of absinthe.

As no one has quite figured out how to make decent money from information on the internet, where anything can be found out relatively easily for free, all it takes is for enough of the good writers to go rogue and online, before the system collapses and magazines go so far south they are geographically north again. Also, it is clear that TV does not hold the answers, ever since Dominic Diamond ran off somewhere with the disembodied head of Patrick Moore, leaving behind many shows that tried but never could.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Nintendo and its crazy controls

For two years now we have been enjoying Wiimote waggling with the Wii, and for four years the screen pokery of the DS. Both have introduced new ways to control games that go against the tried and tested button pressing of every console since time began. The results of this can sometimes offer a truly unique and pleasant experience, but other times it makes you replace the stylus/Wiimote with a hammer, and go to town on the fiddly little consoles. There are also those games that sit in the middle of public opinion along with Marmite and Bill Oddie, where everyone decides if they love it or hate it. Zelda: The Phantom Hour Glass for example is entirely motion controlled. Nintendo decided that the conveniently placed d-pad should not be used like they are in every game ever to move the character, but instead pointing the stylus was the way to go. In fact, touching the screen controls pretty much everything in the game.

Whilst things like this are innovative and fairly original concepts, it does keep you on your toes about what those who are mad enough to build their dreams at Nintendo have in store for us next. Will we in the future see some kind of combination of waggle stick and touch screen? Lord knows how something like this would come about or be feasible unless we all suddenly mutate to have more limbs, but the real question is, will Nintendo ever go back to button mashing, joystick waggling games?

A hybrid touch/motion control scheme for a game might actually be possible, but not in the way that would combine the current Wiimote and stylus waving. Such a device would be unwieldy and has the potential to cause psychosis and cripple unwary beta testers. As this guy has proven, it is possible to set the Wiimote up to track your individual finger movements on a screen in a similar fashion to those cool monitors we all wish we had that feature in Minority Report. If such a system could be implemented in a game, it could lead to many interesting possibilities.

With a system like this, we could have a much more sensitive and responsive version of Wii boxing. Fight not going your way? Poke your opponent in the eyes, go for a cheeky hair pull or maybe even disrobe him (if you are that way inclined). It could also be implemented well in a real time strategy game. Just imagine selecting units with your finger tips and pointing at the screen telling the where to go. Perhaps certain hand gestures could be used to suggest actions like movement, attack, bombard, flay, burn, eat, massage…. well, maybe not that one, unless we have another Leisure Suit Larry forced upon us. Another idea is that instead of having your God’s hand as a cursor in Black & White, you actually use the hand on the end of your wrist to throw villagers and stroke animals, just nothing below the belt.

Unique control schemes are a bit of a mixed bag. The NES power glove for example was basically a standard controller with a calculator interface mounted on a cleaning glove that gave you as much control as a Segway piloted by a worm farm. You can not really tell how well something will work until it is in your hands. The latest idea for a way to control games is using the Neural Impulse Actuator which reads the spongy mass inside your skull and somehow translates this to the game. This creates many more interesting ideas for games, not to mention a very worrying thought of what happens if they bring out another Leisure Suit Larry with this in mind…


Note – To anyone who may frequent this enough to notice if I miss a Wednesday (thank you by the way!), there may or may not be an entry next week due to a two week work placement at PC Zone. I will update with my happenings on this venture if I am allowed to do more than make tea.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

An open world

Arguably, the Grand Theft Auto series can be seen as the series that inspired a lot of the games where a big sprawling environment is a key feature. A player thrown into a new place is like a child being placed in the centre of an Amazon rain forest. You feel disorientated, overwhelmed and there are a lot of unpleasant ways to meet your demise. Whether this happens by speeding trains, bullets or malaria is very often down to the player as to a lot of extents, these games give a tremendous feeling of freedom.

As mentioned earlier, Grand Theft Auto was one of the first cases that gave us a big city to explore. The top down view had its limitations, but to make up for this there were roads that would seemingly go on forever, and a huge city that offered a lot of space to complete missions or cause havoc. It was with the series’ evolution however, that really opened up a whole new world to roam, reap and ravage. You could stand on top of buildings and see as far as the game could render until it turned into a murky fog. You could completely forget about the central plot and just burn and pillage all of those who were indecent enough to wake up that morning and come within a mile of you. There really was a lot of stuff that you could do that gave the sense that it was a living world that functioned without you even playing out the events of the game.

With the latest instalment, Grand Theft Auto IV, it made the open, sprawling world to the next level. You could see far in to the distance and not have your view obscured by the rendering fog. The city functioned even more realistically, with bin men appearing on the back of their trucks in the very early hours of the morning. There was an even bigger population for you to mutilate with car bumpers and an assortment of weaponry. The open world sandbox just got a lot more sand tipped into it, enough to fill an Olympic sized swimming pool that would make the beaches of Weston look even more terrible than they already are.

A lot of other games have drawn ideas from open ended worlds and took them in new directions. Others have taken the idea that Grand Theft Auto introduced and then made a carbon copy of it with a different label slapped on the case. These days, an open world that offers insane amounts of freedom is nothing new. There are so many Grand Theft Auto clones out there wearing different suits, it is untrue. Unfortunately, these different suits are usually made out of tramp blankets and road kill, and they do not accomplish anything near the scale of what Grand Theft Auto has done. There are a few games out there though that have changed the formula and made some very fun additions to it.

Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction for example was a PS2 and XBOX game that was amazing fun to play. Forget nice cars, bikes and speed boats. This was Grand Theft War Zone. It was an open game that put you in the shoes of a Mercenary who could pick when to do missions for the various military factions that had set up camp in North Korea. Instead of trying to steal the fastest car from some business man with more money than sense, you will often be on the hunt for passing tanks or even helicopters (that are in flight) to steal for your dastardly deeds. You can also call in a very vast amount of support ranging from an airlifted jeep to a bunker buster bomb that can completely level the biggest buildings in a single strike. The unique thing about using weapons like this is that once a building is dead, it stays that way, so going postal like you would in the GTA series is not something you want to do here, if you intend on saving the game afterwards.

Mafia applied the open ended world to a linear story line and it worked very well. There was similar freedom, as in choosing when to do missions for people, and being able to play about in the city when you choose. The story however, is much more central to Mafia, with there being only one place to get missions from, and no other way to get through the game without following the main story arc. This meant that there was a very well done combination of open world freedom, but tight and to the point story telling.

Massively multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft and my favourite, EVE Online, also have these wide open worlds with few limits. This is however a necessity for these kinds of games as a linear start location going to an end location would clearly not work in these sprawling worlds, where the players make the game more than anything.

Open world games can be very fun, but these days, trying to emulate Grand Theft Auto is a bad idea, as trying to match the mastery of the series is a very hard task to attempt. Unless something different is done to the formula, then the critics will compare the game to the GTA series, and from here it could well get crucified, ripped down before it is dead, flogged with trees and then burned to a crisp.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Good and Evil

Choice is something that more and more games seem to be granting us these days. Upon making the initial choice of whether or not to pick the game off of the shelf, and then the following choice of whether to pay for it, or knee cap the shop assistant and run off with it, some games still continue to give you decisions to make at every turn. They do this in very different ways as well, but more often than not, there usually only tend to be two extremes. Left or right, good or evil, skirt or trousers, chainsaw in the face or walk around, we are getting some freedoms in games to do whatever we want, but within preset boundaries.

In Bioshock for instance, the choices here involve liberating, and therefore helping little girls, or violently punching your hand through their chest to recover a parasitic sea slug. The more you save or slaughter depends on the outcome and ending cut scene of the game. Whilst this seems like a bit of a good or evil choice, if you ask me, if you even decide to brutalise one four year old girl with your bare hands, and let the others go free, you are still rather evil. Killing a child to see if it tickles your fancy, only to spare her siblings still gets you the good ending, rather than the grey one that the players state of mind would suit.

Lately I have been playing about on deity simulator, Black & White 2. The basis of the game is that you advance through various lands helping the Greek people flourish. You can do this by nurturing your people and making the other nations see that your race of people believe in the one true god, and so they come under your banner of impressiveness. The other method of doing this is by becoming a wrathful god of war, who will destroy all of those in his path. With a name like 'Black & White' you would have thought that best way to get through the game would be to take one extreme over the other. I set out trying to be an evil over lord, oppressing my people and making sure that they respected me through fear. I also decided that they need a ready supply of food so that they could stay alive to follow me. The creature, my physical tool on the Earth was supposed to be my doom bringer. I had to stop him from eating my followers though, as without followers worshipping me, I was not really a very effective God. I also trained him to water crops and build houses for my people because he did it a lot better than they ever did. Before I knew it, my evil disciple of hell who I envisaged would be Hitler in animal form turned out to be as soft as a bunny, and that the village children liked to hug him. In then end, the extent of my evil was that I built my followers a lot of shoddy accommodation and I flattened the occasional opposing army.

The trouble was, the best way to get anything done was not to go black or white, but stay a boring shade of grey. This meant that my harbinger of doom was as soft as a puppy to my people, but about as friendly as a hornet having it's period to anything else. In ways this was good, but it did not really identify me as being good or evil, only as neutral, occasionally dipping either side of the line.

The best choice driven games, in my opinion, are the ones that funnel you down certain routes depending on your actions. House of the Dead 2 for example, relied on how quick on the draw you were, as to whether you get in the building through the door or the window. Decisions that the player makes in that split second that can define how you play the game are fantastic. There is no neutral decision or outcome, you either do it or you don't and then play with the cards you are dealt.

I have never played the Silent Hill games extensively, but they have multiple endings, some of them crazy, and which one you get depends on how you get through the game. Most of them are plausible, and help tie the answers up, but others were clearly thrown in as a joke. This ending for Silent Hill 2 for example is my favourite because it is so obscure compared to the rest of an, already very odd game.

Giving the player more choice than 'kill the bad men or get killed by them' is still a relatively new concept to games. It is still in development, and a game that offers significant levels of differences based on all of the player's actions is yet to come about. No doubt that in time however, this will come into its own and might even become a mainstream mechanic in gaming, rather than following a single story line on one track.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

What will Wii do?

The Wii is currently grazing in its second year in the UK and I have really enjoyed the time that I have spent with it. I enjoyed the long rides across Hyrule field, the drives through Moo Moo Meadows, the fun we had playing board games with Mario and decapitating the zombies with headshots, side by side in Racoon City. Many a good time have been had, and I am looking forward to June the 27th when hopefully, Nintendo will allow me and my Wii to kick seven shades of God knows what out of Luigi in front of the Shadow Moses facility with Kirby when Super Smash Brothers Brawl finally reaches our shores. Beyond this however is a very dark shadow and it suddenly hit me, I can not think of a single title coming soon that is exciting me.

Trying to think of new Wii games coming out that sound mildly epic is harder than Rambo sealed in steel reinforced cement. I will admit that I have been a tiny bit out of the loop as of late doing those things that get in the way of games. What were they called again? Oh yes, exams. Despite this however, I am not a complete Luddite when it comes to knowing about stuff I want and so as I sit here tapping away, I need to reach quite deep in my skull to find excitement for any new Wii related gaming snippets.

The lack of news might mean that some big secret is in the pipeline, as has recently been speculated about by the folks at Gamesradar, but it could just be that the big N has been enjoying rolling in the bundles of cash that it is generating from DS and other sales.

If there is something new coming on the Horizon, it might be a truly amazing title that is being saved for a Christmas release. This would make sense as facing the Christmas market with anything less impressive than gold dust and super hi tech wizardry is like taking your company's reputation to a pig farm, cutting it up in to bite size chunks and then calculating how many pigs you need to eat and digest it in a single sitting. A console without a big Christmas pitch is one which will not last much longer. This might mean that something truly amazing like a new Zelda or a brilliant original title could be just around the corner. At the moment however, there is not much in sight.

One title that did manage to catch my attention was MadWorld which looks like the love child of Frank Miller's Sin City and Manhunt. The recently released trailer may give you an idea of what I mean. All I know is that a game that glorifies mutilation, and has a feature called 'Man Darts' must have some entertainment value. The chief concern that I have for this game however is that it might just turn into a case of walking up to person A, pressing a button which prompts an animation to kill them. I really am hoping that the controls offer depth and more choice and involvement in the bloody murder fest coming soon. Whatever happens, those people who sit by their phones ready to complain about anything slightly raunchy happening before the watershed, could possibly have a bit of a fit from the random violence this games looks to offer us.

The new Star Wars game, The Force Unleashed could also prove to be a worthwhile purchase, as the Wii version sounds promising. The lack of sexy graphics that the PS3 and XBOX 360 will enjoy is made up for by allegedly decent motion controls and a two player light sabre duel option. Being a fan of the later Jedi Knight series and their light sabre slashing action, carving things in half and instantly cauterising the wounds is an unpleasant, but very satisfying thing to do. Hopefully this chapter will get the evil Jedi controls and gameplay perfect allowing for bad guy carveries in the near future.

Whilst the future is not looking amazing at this current moment in time, Nintendo are never completely out of ideas. There are a lot of franchises that they can breath new life in to from previous consoles that have so far gone untouched on the Wii. There could even be some new ground breaking games which do not feature characters that are by now burned into our retinas through repetition. The industry is forever evolving, and so something big could be closer than we think.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

The evil that men do

The more eagle eyed readers amongst you might have spotted that the title of this post shares its name with an awesome Iron Maiden song. Being a website devoted to the gaming world, this title does have some relevance to a topic that has been plaguing my mind and the world wide media as of late. It tends to resurface every now and then when a fantastic new and violent 'maim 'em up' game is released. It is the forever raging argument that computer games are the reason for murder, theft, World War II and the kidnapping of Madeline McCann.

When Grand Theft Auto 4 came on to the horizon it would be very easy to predict that anti-electronic fun campaigners would jump on it like a wild dog going for your cat's jugular, mercilessly and likely to concern you. Mr buzzkill himself, Jack Thompson even went as far as sending a letter to the Mother of Take Two chairman, Strauss Zelnick. The goal of this letter was to bring to her attention the 'murder simulator' that her boy was inflicting upon hoards of easily brainwashed children who were on the edge of going postal. Instead, the letter found itself splashed all over the internet for ridicule from just about everyone who lay their eyes on it. It seems so mad that it would have been interpreted as a joke by everyone, if Mr Thompson did not have such a reputation for wanting games out of shops and people below the age of 30 indoors before 6:30.

Resorting to this level of playground politics seems like a very low point to stoop to, but it is just one of the many attacks that games such as Grand Theft Auto have had to endure over the years. The main argument that these anti-video game lot tend to take is that children see the character in a game kill the pixels on the screen, and decide that it would be a good idea to obtain a gun, steal a car, and shoot up random pedestrians. The idea is pretty laughable to anyone with half a brain, but it is the lengths that people are going to in order to try and justify this argument. The Virginia Tech massacre has even been blamed on the influence that computer games have. Personally I think this is just a sick thing to even hint at.

Games don't kill people, idiots do.

This blog seems to have taken a bit of a grim turn, but some of these anti-game enthusiasts need a firm kick in the backside, which I say not because a game made me think it, but because I strongly disagree with them.

The video game industry does seem to get picked on a lot just because it's different. It's the last one to be picked for football, and didn't get invited to Popular Music's birthday party, and so all of the flaws it has are pointed out by the bullies. Games really are not an evil new media, and do not deserve to be accused of murder. Films that portray shootings, beatings, burnings, lawn mower massacres and other common features go untouched by those with the vendetta against gaming. These have been around longer than the dead pets buried in your garden by the previous owners, and have faced nowhere near as much flak for their content. It is simply because this industry is a new one that not everybody understands or respects.

If there really is a problem with young people picking up games and beating each other to death with the boxes, then maybe parents should be a bit more wary about the age ratings on the side of them. It is in my opinion that if someone has managed to navigate their way safely through life for 18 years, then a video game would not play a significant part in their decision making process. Age ratings are there for more reasons than messing up box cover art.

The media is as much to blame as anyone, as it highlights this kind of thing, and gives it the publicity that it really should not have. Before anyone points it out though, I do realise the irony of broadcasting a message which has as a closing statement damning the kind of message that it has just broadcasted.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Villains

I'm not going to lie. The only reason I really wrote about heroes last week so that I would have an excuse to write about the bad guys. They clearly have more fun than the heroes. I am fairly sure that causing a huge city engulfing explosion is a lot more satisfying than seeing a child's face contract its cheek muscles when rescuing a puppy from a tree. Lets face it, if being a hero was really that amazing and impressive in films, they would stop the big crowd drawing, award winning explosions before the villains made them happen. Its the same in games. If Solid Snake could take out Liquid with a headshot from a sniper rifle (if he can get within 15 metres of him, surely 300 isn't a problem) it would do the job nicely and your game would be crap. Lets take a look at the villains that really make the cut shall we?

Bowser is the easy one to start with. He's the misunderstood dinosaur who can not go five minutes without kidnapping the princess of a fungal kingdom. Seriously, if you want to kidnap a fictional princess, why go after the one protecting mushrooms? Is it a matter of principle? He failed once and so he just needs to keep going back to the place, like a masochistic golden retriever, to take the bimbo and just hang on to her. He never seems to do anything once she is captured apart from taunt a fat plumber who could probably earn a decent wage instead of chasing after mushroom royalty. I know that the Mario games are aimed at a younger audience, but some more plot for the 85% of us who buy the games that can tie our own shoe laces would be nice. Maybe there is a played down sexual angle that the crafty dinosaur is trying to move in on. He certainly doesn't hold her to ransom!

It is that tenacity and determination though which keeps him as a good villain. No matter how many times he is defeated in easily avoidable ways (seriously, why are there anti-dinosaur bombs around the arenas in Super Mario 64!?) he just dreams up another situation he can put himself in with a high risk of defeat. At the end of the day, he is by far the coolest character in the Mario galaxy, and he has my support in his next crazy scheme to kidnap and possibly introduce princess peach to things that she is too naive to know about.

The next villain that I will talk about places an opposite role to one of the heroes I have already mentioned. Revolver Ocelot from the Metal Gear solid series is quite frankly an awesome character. He's a crazy gunslinger who, instead of being practical, and pointing his guns at his enemies, he takes the opportunity to spin them on his fingers. This over confidence has and probably will cost him the fight on quite a few occasions, but it is damn cool to watch. The interesting thing about this character though has been how he has changed over the course of the games. In MGS3 you get to see him when he is 19 years old or so, and it is here when he develops his disturbing fetish for revolvers. Move on 50 years, and he is now some insane hippy look a like who has an alternative persona trapped in his left arm.

The last villain in a game that I will mention here has scared me on many, many, many occasions. Sorry, that was meant to be 'scarred'. The random brutality of this beast is incredible. It can go from a caring father like figure to a charging ball of concentrated rage in half a second. Big Daddies from Bioshock are the stuff that Darth Vader has nightmares about. For a massive clambering abomination, they can move very fast when the little child that they are assigned to guard faces danger. The lights on their helmet go from a calming green to an angry red quicker than a traffic light with tourettes. The first encounter with one of theses nasties shows him absolutely thrashing an unfortunate NPC to pieces as if he were a teddy bear with a £10 note inside. Something that violent, but only when provoked, is a smart villain in the world of lawsuits. If a Big Daddy could apply himself to rob a bank in self defence just think of all the things he could do with the cash. You can never have a drill that is too big for mauling people.

Bad guys are destined to fail. Its a sad truth, but in this Hollywood style world where everything has to work out for the best, there is just no place for evil to prosper. Instead, we tend to get these grey characters who are not good, but not that evil either, and in the end they accomplish things for the greater good. If Grand Theft Auto teaches us anything though, it shows us that it is fun to go on a rampage and be a complete bastard.